The Distributor’s Dilemma
If we don’t disentangle the roles of distributor and publisher, we’ll spend the rest of our lives talking about Joe Rogan
By now you will all have heard about Spotify’s Joe Rogan-shaped problem. In a nutshell, Rogan has been using his Spotify exclusive show, The Joe Rogan Experience, to entertain largely unchallenged anti-vaxx and vaccine-skeptic rhetoric. It prompted music legends Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to try and get their music removed from the platform and has resulted in Rogan making a half-hearted pledge to do his “best to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people’s perspectives, so we can maybe find a better point of view”. The story, however, has not ended.
The problem, as I see it, is one that is going to dominate digital media and media tech in the coming years. It is a fundamental battle between the (possibly irreconcilable) roles of distributor and publisher. Let me explain, and try to get to the root of this issue.
Spotify was, is, and always will be a distributor. At its most fundamental level, it is a mechanism for disseminating music — a remit that, in recent years, has been broadened to encapsulate all audio. And Spotify has, for some time, been market-dominant in this space, powered by VC cash and a step ahead of its rivals. The model for the company — its route to profitability — has been selling its modestly priced subscriptions, which are a pretty good value offering if you listen to music (which most people do), rather than the company relying on selling advertising (which is unstable and has been in decline for as long as the business has existed). The problem is that, as streaming music has become more ubiquitous, so have the number of rivals to Spotify, offering similar products at similar price points. Some, like YouTube Music or Apple Music, are riffing off pre-existing brands which can help them be competitive in this space — if you are an iPhone user, for example, there are advantages and discounts to an Apple Music subscription that may help you prefer it to Spotify. And so, as the distributor space becomes a little busier, Spotify has to think on its feet.
The ambition, for everyone, is to become a one-stop shop, an omni-platform. It is the basic ambition…